winner of this year's "better late than never" award is the long-awaited theatrical release of Krzysztof Kieslowski's television series The Decalogue, a set of 10 hour-long films he made for Polish television in 1987. They will be released, in order, as a series of double bills, over five weeks starting January 12. That is, episodes one and two will open January 12, episodes three and four January 19, and so on.
Kieslowski was a Polish Catholic, but a streak of New Age mysticism is very evident in his later films, particularly The Double Life Of Veronique and Red, the final film of his Three Colours trilogy. The Decalogue is a series of meditations on the Ten Commandments, but not in a biblical or historical sense.
Set in a single Warsaw housing complex, they are a series of intimate tales. Most of them are tiny family dramas with two, sometimes three, major characters.
Kieslowski worked on a very big canvas with a very small brush.
There is no character overlap among the stories, although characters from one episode will turn up in passing in others. For example, the situation of Krystyna Janda's pregnant violinist in episode two will be presented to a philosophy class as an ethical dilemma in episode eight, and a set of stamps mentioned briefly in episode eight becomes the neighbour's goods that are coveted in episode 10.
Some segments are much better than others, but the least of them -- three and seven come to mind -- are never less than very good, and the best of them offer an extraordinary blend of philosophy and drama.
The crown jewels are episodes five and six, which Kieslowski expanded into the theatrical features A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love.
The former is about private and state-sponsored murder, the latter about the grey place where love shades into obsession.
If you can't see the whole series, this is the must-see double bill of the year.
The best of the rest? Episode two offers Krystyna Janda, star of various Andrzej Wajda films and The Interrogation, as a woman who finds herself pregnant by her lover when her husband is hospitalized with a possibly fatal affliction.
She has to decide whether to have the child, and feels she can't if her husband will survive. In torment, she hurls herself against the philosophical resignation of her husband's doctor.
Episode four is a father-daughter story examining what happens when the daughter (Adrianna Biedrzynska, a sort of Slavic Angelina Jolie) discovers that her widowed father may not actually be her biological father and decides to dig at every subtext in their relationship.
Episode nine deals with a man who discovers, in the pre-Viagra 80s, that he will never be able to make love to his wife again. He begins to obsess over the possibility that she's getting a little on the side.
I should note, for the penny-foolish in the audience, that The Decalogue is available on video. Most places don't have it as a rental, though -- only for sale as a boxed set. But having experienced the series theatrically at various film festivals and on video, I recommend the theatre setting.
Kieslowski may have used the same co-writer, editor and composer (Zbigniew Preisner, whose spare, chamber-scaled accompaniments are one of the series' highlights) for the whole series, but each film has a different cinematographer, and their work is best appreciated on the big screen.
After a lacklustre 2000, The Decalogue gives a powerful start to the new year, even if it did have to arrive from more than a decade in the past.
THE DECALOGUE directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, produced by Ryszard Chutkowski, with Krystyna Janda, Adrianna Biedrzynska, Daniel Olbrychski and Olaf Linde Lubaszenko. 581 minutes. A TOR Production. A Les 300 Films release. Opening January 12 at the Carlton Cinemas. Rating: NNNNN